The Half-Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley book review

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After embellishing the 19th century with alternate histories and fantastical developments in four previous novels, beginning with her best-selling debut, “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley bases her latest work on a real 20th century event. “The Half Life of Valery K” departs from a 1957 nuclear explosion in the Soviet Union that released life-threatening levels of radiation into the atmosphere, and the subsequent cover-up by the Soviet government. With all the storytelling skills that made her previous books so readable and popular, Pulley also provides a penetrating study of how a police state distorts individual psychology, personal relationships, and professional ethics.

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Valery Kolkhanov has been imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp for six years when he is summoned to City 40, “a nature reserve” in western Russia, in 1963. The area was deliberately exposed to radioactive contamination, says project director Elena Resovskaya, so that the effects of radiation on an ecosystem can be studied and species that develop resistance can be identified. Resovskaya asked about Valery, who graduated from her in the 1930s, because before his arrest he was a biochemist specializing in radiation. He will serve the remainder of his 10-year sentence as “a prisoner scientist,” said KGB security chief Konstantin Shenkov.

This unexpected assignment is a relief for Valery. Witnessing the irradiated desolation on his drive to the research facility, he tells Shenkov, he assumed he had been selected as a disposable enemy of the state to die “from radiation in a human trial.” Valery, who quickly confessed to every absurd charge against him in 1957, is under no illusions about the nature of the Soviet system, nor does he expect other people to behave better than him; he was relieved to see that his best friend’s name wasn’t on the list of people to sue, because that meant she was the first to expose him and safe.

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But Valery isn’t as pragmatic as he thinks. He soon notices suspicious irregularities in the data Resovskaya provides that suggest radiation levels are much higher than stated, and he warns residents of the nearby town that their children are swimming in a poisonous river. He gets off with a warning from Shenkov, but a colleague who shared his concern isn’t so lucky. When he asks why she was suddenly sent back to Moscow, Resovskaya snaps: need to learn to talk in code. [She] tried to call a journalist… and Shenkov had to shoot her.” Valery finds it hard not to tell the truth, even though he knows it could be fatal, and he’s particularly bad at keeping his doubts a secret from Shenkov. Scattered comments, ambiguous emotional expressions, and glimpses into Valery’s past are skilfully used by Pulley to quietly convey that Valery is gay in a society where it is punishable by law, and that his feelings for Shenkov are dangerously warm.

The KGB officer is one of several three-dimensional characters who give Pulley’s narrative human color as it races through one horrific revelation after another to a bravado (albeit improbable) climax. Shenkov carries out his often murderous duties soberly “because otherwise a psychopath would”; he strives to save those he can. He helps Valery discover what’s really going on in City 40 because he fears the effect of radiation on his four children and his wife, Anna, a nuclear physicist who has had three miscarriages. Starring in Pulley’s vibrant cast is the fascinating and hideous Resovskaya, whose cold-blooded pursuit of her scientific goals drives the plot. She describes injecting people with radioactive material as “the most urgent and important clinical trial in the Soviet Union”, and she justifies any inhumane action by claiming that the Americans are doing – or will do the same things.

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Any Western reader inclined to dismiss this kind of behavior as limited to the Soviet Union should think again when it is revealed that City 40’s radioactive soil comes from nuclear waste that has been disposed of incorrectly. “We used to use tanks, with cooling systems,” says Anna. “But when one of the cooling systems failed, the cost to replace it was estimated very high and the physicists were asked to reassess whether it was necessary.” Security procedures ignored or violated for financial reasons are hardly unheard of in capitalist countries, and Valery also makes some sharp observations about Western social inequality late in the novel.

Pulley’s broad perspective distinguishes her work from that of more routine thriller authors. Studded with memorable characters and deepened by the exploration of thorny moral issues, “The Half Life of Valery K” is gripping popular entertainment with a pleasing intellectual weight.

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theater and America, 1931-1940.”

The half-life of Valery K

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